Once upon a time, there was a musical at Playwrights Horizons that was beloved by just about everyone. Before it opened, producers were lined up to bring it to Broadway. When the reviews came out the show was declared a hit by just about every major and minor critic in the tri-state area ... except the New York Times. All those producers that had their wallets open to transfer the show vanished like smoke on a windy morning. That show was Violet. The year was 1997. It took a while, but balance was brought back into the theatrical universe when Ben Brantley of the New York Times got behind the Playwrights Horizons production of Grey Gardens last season, giving a huge valentine of a review to its star, Christine Ebersole. Wallets were opened once again and a considerably revised new version of the Off-Broadway smash opened last night on Broadway. The musical is improved yet still flawed. And, as before, Christine Ebersole's performance is the reason to see the show. But there is more to it than that ...
Taking nothing away from Ms. Ebersole, it should be noted that, despite the musical's imperfections, the show's creators Doug Wright (Book), Scott Frankel (Music) and Michael Korie (Lyrics), have done something quite well, indeed: they've given their star one of the greatest roles in musical theater history. Of course, they've actually given her two roles, Edith Beale in her 1941 prime and her own broken daughter, Little Edie Beale, thirty-two years later in 1973. Name a musical theater actress who has ever been handed a starring part that runs the gamut from Edith's imperious self-absorption to Little Edie's heartbreaking insecurity. We don't think you can. It is, indeed, the acting opportunity of a lifetime. It is Ebersole's triumph that she fully embraces both roles, inhabiting them with the kind of bravura intensity that one only finds in a star.
The originally flawed first act has been clipped, cleaned, and cauterized. Put another way, it has been shortened, tightened, and the open wound that bled the musical of any hope of rave reviews has been staunched. The performance of Erin Davie as the young Little Edie (replacing Sarah Gettelfinger) is an improvement, as well. Gettelfinger was simply miscast; she was much too formidable to become the Little Edie of the second act. With changes all to the good, the first act is still essentially just a setup for the second, but it has much better pace and the conflicts are more economically established.
The second act was always the stronger of the two and it remains so, with Ebersole's performance of "Another Winter in a Summer Town" unfortunately somewhat upstaged by having Mary Louise Wilson (beautifully playing the aged Edith) joining her and creating a duet. That's not a moment to split the focus of the audience between to actors. Nonetheless, the second act pays off with considerable power and pathos.
Grey Gardens remains an unlikely Broadway musical, but Ebersole's performance might just be enough to carry it through the winter and into the Tony season where one nomination for sure – and very possibly a win -- awaits.
4 Stars: Dancers & Singers; 1 star: The Times They Are A-Changing
How many pans can a show withstand
Before they call it a day?
Yes and how many times can the talent survive
When so many moments don't land?
The answer my friend is Twyla's blown the show
The answer is Twyla's blown the show.
Talented singers and dancers and so many meaningful songs are being chewed up eight times a week in Twyla Tharp's misconceived The Times They Are A-Changin'. This homage to Bob Dylan ends up as one of this season's biggest duds (so far). This one will likely be "movin' out" of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre mighty quick, unless it has a big advance that will allow the production to outrun its reviews.
The first and biggest mistake Tharp makes with this musical is the decision to use Dylan's songs as the basis for a hackneyed story (if you can call it that) set in a circus. With that choice, everything that follows has to get over the hump of coming out of a cliché. Be that as it may, Michael Arden as Coyote, the musical's young hero, displays a vibrant voice and remarkable versatility as an actor/singer/and sometimes dancer. Thom Sesma has a dark and dangerous charisma as Coyote's villainous father (and mean circus owner). Lisa Brescia, as a runaway living at the circus, displays a lovely voice but doesn't fully register beyond bland. Ah, but the dancers are sensational; what a troupe of talented performers. Standouts include Charlie Hesyba-Hodges, Jason McDole, Lisa Gajda, and John Selya.
If her concept is flawed, Tharp's ability to choreograph with imagination and style is nonetheless still in evidence. The show is never boring; rather it's maddening because so much talent is being expended with too little to show for it.